The COVID-19 crisis and the government’s response to it is the political issue that most affected Israelis in the past year, emotionally, financially and physically. So it is only natural that every political-party head outside of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc would attack his management of the crisis as a “total failure,” as New Hope party chairman Gideon Sa’ar did on Army Radio in early March.
Such criticisms come even as Netanyahu’s policies have kept the pandemic’s death count in Israel to approximately 6,000.
These deaths are tragic, but simple math shows that tens of thousands more Israelis could have died. Assuming a low overall disease-fatality rate of 1 percent and a 70 percent threshold for herd immunity (for some diseases it is higher), then without aggressive measures, before Israel reached herd immunity 65,000 Israelis would have died. Many more would have suffered severe hospitalizations and long-term symptoms.
The reality could have been even worse. Israel’s population density is 402 people per square kilometer, the third-highest in the OECD. To make matters worse, 93 percent of Israelis reside in urban areas, 12 percent more than the OECD average. If the Negev Desert is excluded, Israel’s population density approximately doubles. When dealing with a highly contagious disease, such high population density is deadly.
Moreover, before the pandemic, Israel’s hospitals were at near-capacity. In August 2019, the Taub Center found that Israel’s hospital-bed occupancy rate “is exceptional at about 94% versus an average of 75 percent in both the OECD countries and those countries with similar systems,” and its hospital system “quite limited in its ability to absorb new patients.” For this reason, in March 2020 The Washington Post noted that Israel was “particularly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by an epidemic.”
Israel, therefore, faced the disaster scenarios seen elsewhere, as demonstrated by the rapid case growth here before each lockdown.
But by mid-February 2021, when vaccines only began to have some impact, Israel had fewer COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people than all but six U.S. states, each with a population density lower than Israel’s by orders of magnitude. In the OECD, Israel ranked 15th out of 37 in the least deaths per 100,000 from COVID-19. Of the 14 countries with fewer, all but two have population densities drastically lower than Israel, most in only single or double digits. More impressive, Israel has the OECD’s second-lowest disease-fatality rate (0.7 percent). Only Iceland’s is lower (0.5 percent) and it has a population density of three people per square kilometer.
Today, in large part through Netanyahu’s efforts (confirmed by Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in his Channel 12 interview), Israel has obtained more vaccines than any other country per capita. Over 55 percent of Israelis have received one dose and 44 percent have received a second. More than 90 percent of those age 50 and up have received at least one dose. Daily case numbers are dropping quickly. Israel will thus be the first country to emerge from the pandemic and will do so without ever having been overwhelmed by the virus.
This unlikely achievement resulted from sound policy implemented despite bitter resistance, including from members of the Cabinet. Throughout, many politicians opposed restrictions, as if the virus could be ignored, sometimes citing data from select wealthier and larger countries, some with lower population densities than Israel, even as they had twice as many or more COVID-19 cases proportionally.
Some argued that instead of lockdowns and hefty restrictions, at-risk groups should have been “protected,” a politically correct way of saying locked up for a year. Aside from its inhumanity, such a policy would have meant courting disaster by allowing the virus to run rampant. As it is, Israel’s 60-plus population only saw approximately 11 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases, protecting themselves without a state-mandated, year-long lockup.
But without the lockdowns and other restrictions, the minimal human interactions they had would have been more likely to result in infection and death. Several thousand younger Israelis would also have died, even assuming Israel’s low disease-fatality rate for this group remained unchanged despite a vastly increased prevalence of the virus.
These politicians’ reckless undermining of policy during a national crisis represents political populism and opportunism at its worst. They preyed on people’s legitimate frustrations and financial anxiety. With days to an election, Israelis ask why their longest-serving leader should be given another mandate. Netanyahu’s success in managing this crisis and political courage in resisting the populism that led other countries to disaster is their answer.
Daniel Tauber is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.
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